Today’s Aquinas: Mineral, Vegetable, Animal, Human, and Divine

Today’s Aquinas: Mineral, Vegetable, Animal, Human, and Divine October 12, 2015

ThomasAquinas We’re blogging through St. Thomas Aquinas’ Compendium Theologiae, sometimes called his Shorter Summa. Find the previous posts here.
Today’s post is from Chapter 52, “Solution of the Difficulty: Distinction in God According to Relations”.

In the previous chapter, Thomas posed a problem: how can God be three persons, yet remain metaphysically simple? It’s a serious question: if God were not metaphysically simple, then God’s existence must have been caused by something else, and God simply wouldn’t be God as Thomas (and the Church) means the term. In this chapter Thomas begins to address the question. He says,

The principle for solving this difficulty must be derived from the fact that, among different classes of beings, the various ways in which one thing may arise or proceed from another, depend on the diversity of their natures. Among lifeless beings, which do not move themselves and are capable of being moved only from outside, one thing arises from another by being, as it were, outwardly altered and changed. In this way fire is generated from fire and air from air.

In other words, something arises from a rock or a dead branch only if something else acts upon it. The flow of water or the boring of beetles or the miner’s pick or the sculptor’s chisel can take the dead thing and make something else of it.

The next step up from dead things are living things, e.g., plants and animals. All living things have certain things in common: they take in nourishment, they grow, and they bring forth new members of their kind. Such things have what Thomas, following Aristotle, calls a vegetative soul. These capabilities are purely bodily, which is to say purely material.

But among living beings, which have the property of moving themselves, something is generated within the parent; for example, the young of animals and the fruits of plants. Moreover, the different manner of procession in living beings must be viewed according to their different powers and kinds of proceeding. Among such beings, there are certain powers whose operations extend only to bodies, so far as they are material. This is clear with regard to the powers of the vegetative soul, which serve nutrition, growth, and generation. In virtue of this class of the soul’s powers, there proceeds only what is corporeal and what is bodily distinct although, in the case of living beings, somehow joined to that from which it proceeds.

From an apple tree comes apples containing apple seeds; and from an apple seed grows an apple tree: a distinct and separate thing, yet connected to its parent by their shared nature and by its history.

But some living things have an additional capability: they can sense the world around them and act on what they sense, as when my mother-in-law’s dog stole an entire steak out of the oven. (The oven was off, for you dog-lovers; the steak was marinating in a pan.) Such creatures have what Aristotle calls a sensitive soul, which adds the powers of sense and appetite to those of the vegetative soul. Of these creatures, Thomas says:

There are other powers whose operations do not transcend the limits of bodies and yet extend to the species of bodies, receiving them without their accompanying matter. This is the case with all the powers of the sensitive soul. For sense is capable of receiving species without matter, as the Philosopher says (De anima, III, 4, 429 b 21). But such faculties, although they are receptive of the forms of things in a sort of immaterial way, do not receive them without a bodily organ. If procession takes place within these powers of the soul, that which proceeds will not be something corporeal, nor will it be distinct or joined to that faculty whence it proceeds in a corporeal way, but in a certain incorporeal and immaterial fashion, although not entirely without the help of a bodily organ. Thus the representations of things imagined, which exist in the imagination not as a body in a body, but in a certain spiritual way, proceed in animals. This is why imaginary vision is called spiritual by Augustine (De Genesi ad litteram, XII, vii, 16; xxiv, 50).

Animals can reproduce themselves, naturally; but they can also sense the forms of things. My mother-in-law’s dog smelled the steak, and perceived the steak internally in a way that is not fully material or corporeal. When I imagine a smell that I once smelled, or more likely a scene that I once saw (not being a dog), that scene is not physically present; but my remembrance of it depends on those parts of my brain that play a role in visual perception.

Thus, you might say that there are three ways things can proceed from a creature with a sensitive soul: the creature can modify something external to itself, as a dog chews a bone; the creature can reproduce itself, as two dogs produce puppies; and the creature can reproduce the sensible forms of other things internally as sensory imaginations.

Next come animals with a rational soul, which is to say you and I. Not only can we sense the things around us, we can abstract from those sensory impressions. We can see, remember, and imagine a particular dog; but we can also think and reason about dogs in general, and from them to animals in general and the things all animals share. Thomas refers to this capability as the intellect, and points out that it is strictly immaterial, and requires no bodily faculty. (For a modern argument, see James Ross’ paper Immaterial Aspects of Thought.) Thomas says,

But if something proceeds in a way that is not corporeal when the imagination is in action, this will be the case much more in the operation of the intellectual faculty, which can act without any bodily organ at all; its operation is strictly immaterial. For in intellectual operation a word proceeds in such a way that it exists in the very intellect of the speaker, not as though contained therein locally, nor as bodily separated therefrom, but as present there in a manner that is conformable to its origin. The same is true in that procession which is observed to take place in the operation of the will, so far as the thing loved exists in the lover, in the sense described above.

Thus, to the three things that proceed from the sensitive soul we add a forth: the word or abstract concept. But in none of these cases is the thing that proceeds identical to the soul from which it proceeds: the carving is not the carver, the scene is not the viewer, the idea is not the thinking, and the child is not the parent:

However, although the intellectual and sensitive powers are nobler in their own scale of being than the powers of the vegetative soul, nothing that subsists in the nature of the same species proceeds either in men or in other animals according to the procession of the imaginative or sensitive faculties. This occurs only in that procession which takes place through the operation of the vegetative soul.

At best we can say that the child is of the same species as the parent, but is distinct and separate from the parent.

The reasons for this, Thomas says, is composition. Each of the things we’ve been talking about is composed of form and matter having that form: the form of a stone, a plant, a dog, a human being. Procreation occurs by bodily division: part of the parent’s body is used to make the child’s body, and the child receives the parent’s form. Of the four kinds of procession we’ve discussed, only procreation involves this kind of bodily division.

The reason for this is that in all beings composed of matter and form, the multiplication of individuals in the same species is effected by a division of matter. Hence among men and other animals, composed as they are of form and matter, individuals are multiplied in the same species by the bodily division which ensues in the procession that is proper to the operation of the vegetative soul, but that does not take place in other operations of the soul. In beings that are not composed of matter and form, no distinction can be discerned other than that of the forms themselves. But if the form, which is the reason for the distinction, is the substance of a thing, the distinction must obtain between subsistent things. Of course, this is not the case if the form in question is not the substance of the thing.

Sensory images and intellectual concepts have form but not matter, and hence must be separate distinct things, because they have only their form to make them distinct. If I have two dogs, they both have the same form, “dog”; but this one’s matter is over here on my lap, and that one’s matter is over there on the rug. Plus, their matter looks different. Thus, I can tell them apart. But without the matter there’s just the form, which is a single thing. You might say, each time I think of an apple, I’m thinking the exact same concept as I did last time.

As is clear from our discussion, every intellect has this in common, that what is conceived in the intellect must in some way proceed from the knower, so far as he is knowing; and in its procession it is to some extent distinct from him, just as the conception of the intellect, which is the intellectual likeness, is distinct from the knowing intellect. Similarly the affection of the lover, whereby the beloved is in the lover, must proceed from the will of the lover so far as he is loving.

My concepts proceed from me; I’m the one who knows them; but they are distinct from me, being a likeness of the object I’m thinking of. But with God it is different: God’s intellect, Thomas has shown, is not a separable part but one with His existence; He is all-in-all. And thus His conception of Himself is perfect, all-encompassing, and also one with with his very existence. It proceeds, but is not distinct.

But the divine intellect has this exclusive perfection: since God’s understanding is His existence, His intellectual conception, which is the intelligible likeness, must be His substance; and the case is similar with affection in God, regarded as loving. Consequently the representation of the divine intellect, which is God’s Word, is distinct from Him who produces the Word, not with respect to substantial existence, but only according to the procession of one from the other. And in God considered as loving, the same is true of the affection of love, which pertains to the Spirit.

And because the acts of will are metaphysically similar to the acts of intellect, the same applies to God’s love.

And so God’s Word, the Second Person of the Trinity, proceeds from God but is not distinct from God, and God’s Love, the Third Person of the Trinity, does the same.


photo credit: Public Domain; source Wikimedia Commons

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